Native Birds of Wisconsin: The Downy Woodpecker

by Patricia Cazares, age 13, Original Artwork by Annie Shao, age 17

    Downy woodpeckers are usually found in woodlands, parks, and gardens. They are found in Canada, Alaska, and all over the United States except the southwestern portion. These fascinating birds are native to Wisconsin.

    A distinctive feature of downy woodpeckers is their small size, which allows them to survive in more habitats than larger woodpeckers. Downy woodpeckers make homes in both small and big branches of trees by drilling cavities in dead tree branches. The holds can be as small as 10 centimeters in diameter. Bigger woodpeckers are unable to use such small branches.
    Male downy woodpeckers have a red hindcrown patch that has inspired legend among many Native American tribes. It is often considered a symbol of hard work and bravery. Female and juvenile woodpeckers are similar in appearance to the males, but lack the red hindcrown patch.
    These birds weigh only about one ounce. They are five to nine inches tall. The eye color of a young downy is brown with yellow outer edges, while adult birds have dark red irises. All downy woodpeckers have black and white backs, a white abdomen, and black legs. Their black-spotted, square-shaped tail has white outer feathers.
They are often confused with the hairy woodpecker. The major distinctions between the two species are that a hairy woodpecker is larger, has a wider bill, and has spots that make it unique from the downy woodpecker or the red-bellied woodpeckers.
    The birds make their nest inside a tree by lining their previously drilled cavity with wood chips. The female will lay three to seven white eggs inside the hole. Both parents keep the eggs warm for about 12 days until they hatch. This gestation process takes place in and around forests.
    While their diet is made up mostly of insects and seeds, they also consume suet, sunflower seeds, nuts, sugar, water, and fruit. The male downy eats higher up the tree than the female, because they like branches smaller in diameter. When they are looking for food, feathers around their nostrils keep them from breathing in wood chips. These North American birds can also use insects found on weed stems as sources of food, while other woodpeckers cannot.
    The downy woodpecker is an considered by many to be one of North America’s most interesting birds because of its unique habitats and commonly misinterpreted appearance. Its behavior is different from all other birds.
If anyone tries to find one of these unique downy woodpeckers, they should listen for their song, a quiet “pik” sound.